Meditating with Monks: Wat Tam Wua

Wat Tam Wua is a monastery located within the forest 35km south of Mae Hong Son.  I was referred here by Stephanie, my good friend from the thai massage course.  Here, anyone can come practice vipassana meditation with the monks in a breathtaking environment for as long as they’d like (the monastery is donation based).  The monastery is run by a smiling abbot who has been practicing meditation for over 50 years, including 9 years of meditation in some secluded caves in the deep jungle.  I told myself I would give vipassana a try, knowing that it would be a great challenge to drop everything and meditate for hour upon hour, day after day.  I wound up spending 9 days in near silence, practicing walking, sitting, and lying meditation for around 6 hours each day.

Walking meditation.

Walking meditation.

Vipassana meditation is all about becoming mindful.  Mindful of what is going on in your body, your surroundings, and mindful of your thoughts.  A main component of vipassana is observing your thoughts while trying to prevent the ceaseless chatter that inevitably arises. To me, this is almost akin to stopping gravity.

That is to say it is not impossible, but it is a truly great challenge.  There are times when we have fleeting feelings of momentarily escaping gravity: the g-forces of a roller coaster, the upward rebound from a bungee jump, the lucky astronauts who float through space.  It is similar in meditation as we sometimes surrender into that calm, clear state of mind devoid of the mindless chatter that usually serves us no purpose.  It is also similar in that the effects of gravity return, and so too does the mindless chatter after a short time.  Perhaps that is why those few who have devoted their lives to meditation, like the abbot, seem to be floating on cloud nine.  It almost seems as if gravity (the mindless chatter) no longer applies to them.  Serenity is strewn upon their faces and a smile is always armed and ready.

Each day we offerred food to the monks in a traditional ritual.  All food was vegetarian and delicious.

Each day we offered food to the monks in a traditional ritual. All food was vegetarian and delicious.

There is a famous saying “You are not your mind.”  I partially disagree.  Your mind is an intimately personal part of you and is integral to the human identity and experience (although it does not singularly define you, which is what I think the quote is going for).  The mind is one of our greatest gifts.  It is certainly one of our greatest tools as the possibilities of our minds know no bounds.  Held within is our knowledge, wisdom, intuition, and imagination.  If we can learn to train our minds, then in effect we are sharpening our greatest tool.  (Similarly, our bodies are one of our greatest tools, and it is important to keep them healthy or ‘sharp’ as well.)  The most common way to sharpen the mind is through meditation.

Sharpening our minds.

Sharpening our minds.

Someone once told me that meditation is like sitting along a riverbed, watching the water flow past.  Except in meditating, the water is replaced with your wide-ranging thoughts.  Patterns in our thoughts start to become clear.  I find my mind constantly wandering to the future, what is my next move, my next destination, what can I see and do there?  The different scenarios play out on a running loop.  I’ve come to realize that these thoughts don’t serve me well in the here and now, the current moment that truly matters (in a sense it is always today, tomorrow never dies).  Being completely in the current moment is the goal of vipassana, the honey we are searching for.

At Wat Tam Wua nature serves as the temple.

At Wat Tam Wua nature serves as the temple.

Speaking of honey, one of the many quotes posted along the trees reads “When you go in search of honey, you must expect to get stung by bees”.  There are countless times where I have been ‘stung’ in my still very juvenile journey towards mindfulness.  Being outdoors in the forest monastery, there have been countless times where I have literally been stung by biting ants and insatiable flies (please hold your insect orgy somewhere besides my face).  Some rare days, slipping into a clear mind is rather natural.  Other days (more commonly) it is as natural as Pamela Anderson’s tits.  The harder I try to concentrate and clear my mind, the more random thoughts come knocking on the door, looking for a place to crash.  Vipassana has taught me to accept the good with the bad, to just be aware that my thoughts are muddled and to bring my focus back to the stabilizing foundation of my breath, even if it is every five seconds.  You can’t weed all of Central Park in a day, and you can’t clear your mind out in one either.  There are three prominent thoughts that stuck out from among the weeds during my meditations (they are all based on some of my favorite quotes).

The best people you meet, you meet on the road.

It seems like everywhere I go, the more I see the less I know.

Fool’s count their problems.  The wise count their blessings.

I could explain what these mean to me now, but I’d rather meditate on them down the road.